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Crime and inflation in rural Brazil

Small towns in the north east of Brazil resemble the Wild West in some ways; organised assassinations between land owners and politicians are not uncommon. There are more murders committed in these places in relation to the population than the big cities. In Aracaju, for example, there are 47 murders for every 100,000 people, whereas in Rio de Janeiro it’s 37 and in Sao Paulo it’s

An elderly neighbour of ours left his home one day to go to the petrol station to fill up his car. His wife sensed something was wrong after he had not returned within the hour. Later that afternoon, she received a phone call from a man saying that her husband had been kidnapped and would only be freed after the family paid a ransom for his release. He told them that he would phone the following day at a certain time where he would advise where the man could be exchanged for the money and that they were not to inform the police, which, of course, they did. The kidnapper was arrested the following afternoon at the time he was making the phone call to the family from a phone booth near the town centre. It appears that the police had put a watch on almost every phone booth. The kidnapper was an offduty police sergeant and my neighbour was later found dead in the trunk of his car. He had been shot in the head.

According to the United Nations, a country that has over 25,000 assassinations in a year is considered to be in a state of war; Brazil has more than 40,000.

About this time, President Sarney came up with a plan to curb inflation. This was one of many, as inflation in 1984 was as much as 236% and 420% in 1987, reaching 2,000% by 1993. It was very confusing as each time the currency crept up to a few thousand against the US dollar they would knock the zeros off the end and change the name of the currency. There was the cruzeiro followed by the cruzado then the new cruzado, the cruzeiro again, the cruzado real and finally the real. There were old cruzeiro notes with a stamp on them that said cruzado that were really the new cruzado, which was all fine except for the day of deflation or when a new currency was announced, then everybody was completely confused. You would ask a taxi driver, ‘How much?’ And he would say, ‘Well, it’s fifty thousand of the old money so it must be fifty of the new.’

You would say, ‘Hang on! That’s fifty dollars. If it’s one for one, today must be five thousand. No, they only knocked three zeros off. Wait, let’s ask someone.’ And so you would end up with a crowd of passersby all disputing what the fare should be. After finally deciding the amount and getting change from an old 10,000 note you would both part company thinking you had been screwed or in reality screwed yourselves.

It was always important to keep company funds in an interestbearing or overnight bank account to combat inflation. One day I received a cheque from a client upwards of US$150,000. It was a Friday before a long holiday. To deposit the cheque and wait for the bank to clear it and use our money over the holiday period would result in an enormous loss due to devaluation. So, I decided to cash the cheque, carry the money and deposit it into the company’s bank account the same day so it would gain interest. I took an armed guard from my bank with me and we waited most of the morning for our client’s bank to count the money. When it was handed to us it was in three enormous, supermarket, brownpaper carrier bags. I was hardly going to count it all again in front of a bank full of rural and lower paid workers who were drawing their meagre salaries for the holiday, so the guard loaded the bags in my arms and off we went. It was about half a km to the other bank along a crowded pedestrian shopping precinct. I followed close behind the guard, but I didn’t realise that money could be so heavy and my arms were dropping off. There was no way I was going to give the guard a bag to carry as every time I told him to hurry up, he slowed down or stopped to talk and babble on about how poor his family were and he really did not need this kind of responsibility, and anyway the bank did not pay him enough to be taking this kind of risk. At one point I was worried that he was thinking of making a play for the money himself. I felt conspicuous, like everybody could see I was carrying money. Well, you do get some odd looks when you are a gringo accompanied by an armed guard. Anyway, we made it to the bank and really upset the staff when they found they had to count all the money and get it applied in the overnight interest bearing account by 2.00 p.m. before the bank closed for the holiday. Subsequently, I did get to know the bank manager. We had met in the bank a couple of times then one afternoon I came across him in a bar near the beach and ended up having a drinking session all afternoon with him. We ended up drinking with a crowd of girls in a house of ill repute until the early hours of the following morning. After that time, whenever I visited the bank, he was more interested in when we were going out on another drinking session than how much money I was depositing.

In an attempt to control the economy, President Sarney came up with the brilliant idea that the prices of food items and household goods would be controlled by the government. This meant that suppliers could not increase prices of items at random. Official government tables listing the prices of household items and foodstuffs were circulated in the newspapers and posted in all supermarkets, shops and stores. To endorse this he told the people of Brazil on a nationwide television broadcast that they were the inspectors of the government and anyone finding a shop or supermarket selling items for more than the listed price had the authority to close the establishment down. It was humorous; you would see housewives on the television news flashes after finding an overpriced item, standing outside a supermarket and proudly announcing, ‘As an inspector of the President of the Republic of Brazil, I announce the closure of this establishment for contravening the orders of the president.’ Crowds of shoppers cheered in the background. At last the people had some power and were in control of their wellbeing. Or were they?

It all worked well for a short time until one day you would go to the shop for some eggs and they did not have any, then meat started to be in short supply. To get fish you had to go to the fish quay and bid for fish. If you were lucky enough to get any after the hotel and restaurant owners, it was three times the price. The producers simply decided that if they could not dictate the prices they would stop producing. The plan therefore had an adverse effect in that, instead of remaining controlled, prices increased considerably or goods went out of stock. Supermarkets were putting a limit as to how much each individual was allowed to purchase, such as one dozen eggs or one chicken per person. It became difficult for us as we had to put provisions aboard the ships to keep hungry crews fed for months on end. The only solution was for all of us in the office to go and purchase the allowed quota and then go to the next store and then the next and so on until we had a sufficient stock. For meat we went to the interior and bargained with a local farmer to slaughter a bull, which he chopped into pieces and we put into plastic bags (Jeito Brasileiro), threw in the back of the truck and transported back to town.

Extracted from Martin Oliver’s book ‘The Never Lonely Planet‘. All proceeds of the book will be donated to ECPAT, an organization to combat and End Child Prostitution and Trafficking worldwide.

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